Monday, November 30, 2009

Facial Recognition Software and What Every Volunteer Manager Should Know About It

Computing power has reached the point where it can recognize faces in photographs. This means that you can now quickly and easily catalog the hundreds or thousands of pictures you have of your volunteers in action. It also means that you need to ensure you are taking the right steps to protect the privacy of your volunteers.

Last week I began organizing the hundreds of pictures my wife and I took on a recent vacation and I used the opportunities to try out some new digital photo album software. In the process I discovered a facial recognition feature that saved me hours of work and also got me wondering about privacy issues online. I tagged my wife in one photo (associated her name to it) and the software tagged her to other photos she is in. Although it did not recognize her face 100% of the time, I was thoroughly impressed. I love it when software saves me time and/or makes something new possible. When I added the group picture above from the IAVE conference last week, Picasa automatically scanned the faces in it and based on the another picture of me, it recognized that I was in the picture and tagged my name to it. (Everyone in the photograph was aware this picture would get posted publicly.)

With a quick bit of research online, I found that a number of software products such as iPhoto (for Macs) and Picasa along with photo album websites such as Flickr ( have added the ability to recognize facial similarities in photos.

As with many new technologies, I couldn’t help but recognize that this one could have a potential negative impact on society as well. It is not going to be long before anyone will be able to upload a picture of someone into a facial recognition search engine and then wait to see if there are any photos of that person posted publicly anywhere on the internet. There are already two programs that can accomplish this within the publicly viewable pages of Facebook (Polar Rose and

There can be many reasons for someone to prefer to keep their whereabouts private or their involvement with your organization private. A picture of someone involved in volunteering for your organization that is posted online can threaten either of those privacies. In addition to thinking about how you use photos of volunteers, many organizations are going to need to revisit their volunteer forms. A quick scan in Google suggests that thousands of organizations combine their mandatory waiver of liability with a statement allowing the use of the volunteer’s image in a photo. So in other words, to volunteer with these organizations, you must allow the public use of your image. While this has not been much of a deterrent for volunteers in the past, I wonder if the ability to Google a person’s face as easily as we do something like “volunteer management conference”, will change how volunteers feel about it.

Check out how this great technology can help you organize your photos of volunteers and be sure to review your current policies regarding the use photos of volunteers. This technology is here now and my guess is that it’s going to surface in ways that have not yet even been imagined.

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